An Auckland start-up has signed a deal with the Auckland University of Technology in a bid to produce cheaper, locally made medical cannabis.
The company, PharmaCann, hopes the partnership will eventually help develop high-quality cannabis products which are a fraction of the price of the existing, imported cannabis medicines in New Zealand.
Founder Chris Fowlie said he was confident clinical trials could be underway by the time a law change allowing the cultivation and manufacture of cannabis for medical purposes comes into force, likely to be next year.
"It means we can greatly accelerate our product development pipeline and bring products to market a lot quicker," Fowlie said.
"And for patients, that means access to cannabis-based products in a quicker timeframe, and at a cheaper price."
While the law change is going through Parliament, PharmaCann and AUT have applied for licences from the Ministry of Health which will allow them to begin their work.
Once the license is approved, they will begin growing or purchasing cannabis products for research.
The law change being considered by Parliament aims to make medical cannabis more readily available.
New Zealanders can already be prescribed two imported cannabis products, made by Sativex and Tilray, but the process is complicated and the costs of the unsubsidised products are high – around $1500 a month.
The law change will initially exempt cannabis users with a terminal illness from prosecution, and will eventually lead to the creation of a new regime which allows a wide range of cannabis products to be prescribed by a GP and will permit approved companies to grow cannabis for commercial purposes.
It is not yet clear whether the law change will only allow production of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis or whether it will also permit natural remedies and food products.
Fowlie said: "We believe that if we had a herbal remedy or natural health supplements kind of approach rather than strictly pharmaceutical, we could bring products to market by the end of the year at around 1 per cent the cost of Sativex."
AUT Dean of Health and Environmental Sciences Max Abbott said research into the health benefits of cannabis was still relatively new.
"It is important to increase scientific understanding of the ways in which cannabis and cannabis derivatives can benefit health," he said.
"It is also important that these products are of known and reliable quality and are affordable."
AUT's interest was strictly academic. Abbott said it would be a conflict of interest for it to make money from any products if it was carrying out the clinical trials.
Fowlie has an ambitious vision for the local cannabis industry, and wants to tap into the AUT Drug Delivery Research Group's work with 3D printing and nanotechnology.
If these could be applied to cannabis products, it could give New Zealand a point of difference in an export market, he said.
"We don't want to just aim to be a raw commodity that's just selling tonnes at low value. We want to do something unique."